. . . for my kids. . . and good friends

After Lebanon -- what can we do next?

Several years ago, when civil war nearly engulfed Lebanon again, we were asked by the Dutch Foreign Ministry to look at ways of building bridges between the communities. The result was a two-year project on media, identity and conflict.

With a group of Lebanese journalists from pretty well all the communities, we examined ways forward that had worked for others.  We looked at peace-building in Northern Ireland; and found where the cracks had just been papered over.  We considered consensus democracy in The Netherlands and realised it was breaking down.

I'm still trying to come to terms with what we uncovered.

At the heart of this debate is the concept of identity. It was crystallised by one of the Lebanese participants during a meeting with Assembly Members at Stormont, when she asked them if they were British or Irish. Even I was shocked that legislators in a part of the UK, answered Irish.

An equally powerful image came from Derry/Londonderry, where it was quietly made clear to us, that the old hegemony and power-structures remained. All that had changed was the group with the power. You still had to curry favour for decent health-care or education or housing but now it came from Sinn Fein not the old SDLP.

There was an echo in Lebanon. Suddenly everything made more sense when I realised that the provider of these same social services was not in any sense central government (such as it is) but the local communities. They hold the power and the funds to make or mar people's lives; they decide who receives the limited resources available. You could not devise a better system for 'encouraging' loyalty.

If you think the Dutch are united, relaxed, liberal, tolerant people look at their history. This is the original divided, pillarised society where, first and certainly foremost, people were Catholic or Evangelical or Communist or whatever. That was their identity and the nation was built on these pillars. So each community had its own schools and even media organisations -- radio, newspapers and TV, which still in residual form exist.

For the country to be governable, simplistic versions of democracy were not an option. First past any post would lead to tensions, violence, civil breakdown and national breakup. Consensus democracy was required -- an acceptance that any government would need broad support from several of these communities.

This system emerged and was refined after the second World War and served The Netherlands very well for several decades. But the mechanics of the consensus (as in Lebanon) quickly become embedded and more or less unquestionable. But the basis of the consensus (demographic reality etc) shifts.

So in Lebanon, the growing Shia population felt under-represented in the historical grand deal. In The Netherlands, there were significant new groupings that were not even acknowledged to exist by the traditional parties. And if you have no route into conventional politics, and you feel very strongly about certain issues, you may decide violence is your only option.

It rapidly becomes clear that a system of consensus democracy can never provide a permanent answer, it will need to be revised and updated in response to changing realities. Similarly, groups in Northern Ireland or Lebanon with power will inevitably come to use that power to reinforce themselves, as we have seen.

The easy answer to all these troubles is to have an overarching sense of national identity, where people feel valued and protected and provided for within the country as a whole. If however they feel vulnerable, discriminated against, ignored on this wider stage then they will seek solace and security within their own community. And when that community is perceived to be under threat or seriously disadvantaged then anger and often violence will follow.

OK. What I want from you are some thoughts or ideas or examples that move this debate forward. Please. We diligently chronicled our two years or more of discoveries and discussions, from public meetings in Amsterdam to police visits in Belfast and media interviews in Beirut.

I am happy to share our material (we worked with the media in the region for 15 years) on this forum or anywhere else, with safeguards about personal privacy and safety. And I am happy to put in the heavy work of researching more and writing things up. But I need some help to find the most productive way forward.

I have a suspicion that there's something extremely important buried within our deliberations. But maybe it was just a revelation or two for me, of links and insights that others have already taken fully on board.

Whatever, please post. I shall be quite uncompromising in only publlshing contributions that are constructive.  What I am seeking are some useful and practical steps that can be taken to defuse tensions and offer the prospect of a better future in deeply divided societies.

Last Updated on Sunday, 16 December 2012 07:06  


0 #1 Allan Leonard 2013-01-17 15:06
Thank you for interesting and intriguing article. My work involves promoting what we call a shared future in Northern Ireland. (Though with the recent violence in Belfast that can appear as far away as ever.) We also have an international project, Forum for Cities in Transition (http://citiesintransition.net), which touches upon your international comparison with the Netherlands; the premise is that those who have dealt with, or are still dealing with deep societal divisions are better place to assist others in the same situation.

I would welcome a further discussion on our mutual interests.

BTW I don't agree with your assertion that you have to curry favour with a particular political community in Northern Ireland to receive equal public services -- we aren't that pillarised. But sectarianism, segregation and duplication of services remain stubborn problems here.

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